I remember being taught Acts 15 from the time I was young. I did not learn it quite as fast as I learned John 3:16 or the verses of the Romans Road to Salvation, but my father was proactive in teaching me that Christians should learn how to disagree in a mature and biblical way. Fighting and dividing is not a problem in which any denomination has a monopoly; it’s a Christian problem.
The principles my father taught me from Acts 15 are incredibly relevant and timeless, and he lived them. He would be a delegate at a district church business meeting and would vote against the opinions of others in the church, and then have lunch with those people afterward. Christians can disagree rightly, but we need truth to lead us. This is where Acts 15 is extremely beneficial. There has never been a topic more important than what they were disagreeing about in this chapter—how a person has a relationship with the one true God. And because Paul knew Christ changed a lot about how we have that relationship, he was willing to have “no small disagreement and dissension” with those who pushed the old covenant. But the chapter does not end with arguing and dividing. It ends with resolution. Here is why, I believe:
1. They Listened Quietly to the Other Side and Were Willing to Discuss Things for a Long Time (Acts 15:7-12)
I find it amazing that both sides got their say at the Jerusalem Council and they discussed the issue for a long time. It especially interests me that the whole assembly fell silent (verse 12). Those who opposed Paul and Barnabas opposed them strongly (verse 2), so for them to let these two men speak is significant. Despite the prevalent opposition, both sides were willing to listen to the other speak.
As Christians, we need to learn that just because we listen to someone does not mean we agree with that person. It takes maturity, patience, and discipline to let someone speak when you know he or she is wrong. It is far too common to watch people yell back and forth without listening to each other. I try to keep books in my library of authors who hold the opposite view as me on many key theological and political subjects. I do not do this just to pick apart the opposing argument. I do it because I can learn a lot about how to disagree.
Additionally, the text says the men talked about the issue for a long time (verse 7a). Our culture puts high value on speed and getting things now. But conflict resolution (and even decision-making) cannot always be rushed. These things may take several hours, or even multiple conversations.
My church has had four elders for most of my time at the church. There have been times in elder meetings where at least two of the four of us have disagreed on something and I’ve thought, “There is no way we are going to reach a resolution.” But after talking about it for hours, we always did.
2. They Let Correct Interpretation of Truth Guide Them, Not Traditional Thinking (Acts 15:13-18)
It is easy to have some sympathy for those who had to endure the radical shift in covenants from circumcision, law, and rituals to the blood of Jesus Christ. The book of Acts is quite transitional and change is hard for people, so such a foundational change in theology and practice had to be revolutionary. But James explained that the prophets (specifically Amos, but other prophets as well) foretold of the salvation of the Gentiles. In accordance with this scriptural truth, this interpretation was used as the foundation for the Council’s decision. These Judeans were wrong in their theology and needed to change.
One of the hardest things for Christians to change is their interpretation of a passage, especially if it is one they have held for a long time. In a hermeneutics class at Moody Theological Seminary, a professor told us he does not believe Jesus was praising the woman in the story of the widow’s mite (Mark 12; Luke 21). Just a couple of verses prior—in both accounts (there is a chapter break in Luke which makes this connection more difficult to see)—it says that Jesus warned His disciples about the teachers of the Law because they devoured widows’ houses. My professor believes the woman did not have a choice in giving everything she had, and Jesus was not complimenting her but rather condemning the teachers of the Law.
When I first heard this, I immediately thought there was no way that interpretation could be right. All my life I had believed differently and there was no way I could be wrong. But I thought about it for months. I studied it over and over. Eventually I grew to accept my professor’s explanation. He might be wrong, but I do not want to disregard him out of pride. We all bring presuppositions and pre-understandings to the Bible. We need to have them checked. If we study a text and learn that what we have always believed is wrong, we need to be willing to change. Truth needs to dominate us; we should not dominate it.
3. Both Sides Had to Budge (Acts 15:19-21)
“Budging” does not necessarily mean we “meet in the middle” or compromise our beliefs. As we can see, the Judeans were the ones that needed the most movement in their theology. But as my dad pointed out to me early on, Paul and Barnabas had to move as well. The Council did not require the whole Law, but they enforced four things, perhaps in deference to the Jewish Christians that the Gentiles would be around. One of them—abstaining from sexual immorality—is a timeless command found throughout the Bible. The other three commands—abstaining from food offered to idols, meat with blood, and strangled meat—were not necessarily sinful matters, but they were issued so that the Gentile Christians could avoid giving unnecessary offense to their Jewish brothers. This “budge” wasn’t a shift in theology, but a surrendering of rights for the sake of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9). Perhaps we do not need to change our interpretation of a passage but we might need to budge somewhat on how we apply a given passage.
There are two additional applications from this text that do not speak directly to conflict resolution but can help us deal with disagreement, even if there is no conflict to resolve.
4. Find Your Identity in Christ and Not in Convictions or Opinions
I define a “conviction” as something I am fully convinced of in my own mind that I need to do to avoid sinning and to live right (Romans 14:5). It is not the same thing as absolute truth. Paul taught some things are relative. In Romans 14:14 he said he was convinced that nothing is unclean, but if someone views something as unclean it is unclean for that person, primarily because of weakness in faith. Examples of this in context include a person choosing to eat meat or a person choosing to revere one day more than others. In my personal life I have chosen not to kiss before marriage because I am weak in this area. But none of these things are absolute truths and we make two great mistakes in Christianity in this area. First, we exalt convictions and opinions to the level of absolute truth and as a result we find our identity in them. This is wrong. Paul found his identity in knowing Christ (Philippians 3), not in which laws he chose to put into practice. The second mistake is that we find identity in how we are educated, our political views, or similar matters. Why do people argue political matters as though someone is attacking their identity? Because we have made them our identity.
5. Do Not Rely Too Strongly on Formulas for Ministry and Life in General
Paul argued hard against circumcision in Acts 15, yet he had Timothy circumcised in Acts 16:3 because he did not want to offend the Jews. He did not have a “one-size-fits-all” view of situations like this. It seems he evaluated each circumstance and thought through each one with complexity. Similarly, I think we can become too reliant upon seven-step methods and systems and “always do this” and “never say that” approaches to things like teaching children the Bible and witnessing to people. But people are way too complicated for this. I would not dream of witnessing to a 16-year old American girl who has been told to “listen to your heart” her whole life the same way I would witness to a 50-year old Muslim from the Middle East. In some places Christian is a word to avoid when explaining true biblical discipleship, but in my neighborhood it is a great word to distinguish Protestants from Catholics. We have disagreements often because we are sure our way is the right way or the only way, when in fact that might not be the case.
In today’s culture, it is very easy to blame social media and our 24-hour news cycle for why we argue so poorly. However, people were saying not to discuss politics and religion in public long before the Internet. The fact of the matter is that disagreement will always be a part of life, but how we handle it makes all the difference. I long for a Christian environment where we can disagree well no matter if it’s through spoken conversation or even non-verbal communication. It can be done, if we follow the early church example in Acts 15.